7-31-19 Monkeys can use basic logic to decipher the order of items in a list
Keeping track of rankings could be useful for monitoring social pecking orders in the wild. Monkeys can keep strings of information in order by using a simple kind of logical thought. Rhesus macaque monkeys learned the order of items in a list with repeated exposure to pairs of items plucked from the list, say psychologist Greg Jensen of Columbia University and colleagues. The animals drew basic logical conclusions about pairs of listed items, akin to assuming that if A comes before B and B comes before C, then A comes before C, the scientists conclude July 30 in Science Advances. Importantly, rewards given to monkeys didn’t provide reliable guidance to the animals about whether they had correctly ordered pairs of items. Monkeys instead worked out the approximate order of images in the list, and used that knowledge to make choices in experiments about which of two images from the list followed the other, Jensen’s group says. Previous studies have suggested that a variety of animals, including monkeys, apes, pigeons, rats and crows, can discern the order of a list of items (SN: 7/5/08, p. 13). But debate persists about whether nonhuman creatures do so only with the prodding of rewards for correct responses or, at least sometimes, by consulting internal knowledge acquired about particular lists. Jensen’s group designed experimental sessions in which four monkeys completed as many as 600 trials to determine the order of seven images in a list. Images included a hot air balloon, an ear of corn and a zebra. Monkeys couldn’t rely on rewards to guide their choices. In some sessions, animals usually received a larger reward for correctly identifying which of two images came later in the list and a smaller reward for an incorrect response. In other sessions, incorrect responses usually yielded a larger reward than correct responses. Rewards consisted of larger or smaller gulps of water delivered through tubes to the moderately thirsty primates.
7-31-19 There may be just 19 endangered vaquita porpoises left in the world
An assessment of the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, has found that there are at most 19 of the animals left alive in the wild. Vaquitas are small porpoises that live only in a corner of the Gulf of California near Mexico. Their numbers have dwindled drastically over the past 7 years, leaving them critically endangered. A report published in March concluded that there were just 10 of the animals left, but that may have been an underestimate. Amanda Jaramillo-Legorreta at the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education in Mexico and her colleagues analysed the data from a grid of 46 acoustic detectors placed in the vaquita refuge area in the upper Gulf of California to estimate how many are left. Vaquitas make clicks to echolocate and communicate with one another in a nearly continuous stream. Jaramillo-Legorretta and her team measured the abundance of these clicks recorded by each sensor over 62 days in summer 2018, then figured out how many animals made them. They then compared this data to measurements made during the same 62 day periods in the years since 2011. In 2015, these estimates put the vaquita population at 60. The following year it had halved to 30. By 2017, there had been another 62 per cent decrease from the previous year, and by 2018, another 70 per cent decrease. Over the 7 year period under study, the vaquita population had declined by 99 per cent. Vaquitas are particularly threatened by fishing in their limited habitat. Vertically hung nets called gillnets are draped in the water to catch fish called totoaba, which are sought after because their swim bladders are used in Chinese medicine. The team found that even after a 2016 ban on gillnet fishing – which is not uniformly enforced – the decline in vaquitas did not slow.
7-30-19 Colorado hunter's 'big game' catch is actually baby deer
A hunter who boasted about a "big game" catch on social media had actually let his dog kill a young baby deer. Michael Garcia filmed the fawn being attacked in rural Colorado, and posted both the video and a photo of the deer's flayed body on Instagram. "Got his first big game kill," the caption on the now-deleted post said. After the images were shared widely, Colorado Parks and Wildlife charged Mr Garcia with "several wildlife crimes" and fined him $1,372.50 (£1,127.92). In a Facebook post that has since been deleted, but was later published by local media, Mr Garcia said he was "sorry for everything". "I truly am a lover of the outdoors and in no way would have thought it would get this out of hand!" he wrote. "Gus is an awesome, kind, loving dog," he added. "I let him chase rabbits and squirrels every day, and I promise you, this is the one and only time he's ever caught a fawn." He also claimed the fawn's death was "a freak accident". Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manager Rick Basagoitia said in a statement: "This is a disturbing case. We've heard from many members of the public wanting CPW to investigate." He said the charges were "illegal possession of wildlife", "allowing his dog to harass wildlife", and "unlawful manner of take of wildlife" for the hunt near the Conejos River. (Webmaster's comment: Another males brute's true nature exposed!)
7-30-19 Whale 'swallows' sea lion: 'It was a once-in-a-lifetime event'
Chase Dekker believes the photo he took of a humpback whale "swallowing" a sea lion is the first time that happening has ever been caught on camera. The 27-year-old wildlife photographer and marine biologist had taken a boat of whale watchers out on the water in Monterey Bay, California, on 22 July when the incident happened. "It wasn't a huge group, only three humpback whales and about two hundred sea lions," Chase tells Radio 1 Newsbeat. "We've seen it all the way up to 100 whales with 3,000 sea lions, so it can get really insane." The animals were feeding on a school of anchovies at the water's surface when the whale ended up with something a little larger in its mouth than it probably expected. "We were watching them feed for a long time and then eventually the event - as I call it the once-in-a-lifetime event - happened, and I still can't believe it," he says. "I had about a split second while the whale was coming up to really comprehend that the sea lion was on top of the whale before shooting the rest of the sequence." Chase is "more than 100% confident" the sea lion swam away just fine after it ended up in the whale's mouth. Humpback whales don't have teeth, only baleen plates with bristles inside their mouths. They are filter feeders and the bristles filter food from water - and things like sea lions that don't belong in there. A whale will usually take less than five seconds lunge-feeding, Chase says, but in this instance sunk slowly over 15 seconds with its mouth open, giving the sea lion ample time to swim away. "The whale never actually closed its jaws around the sea lion, so it shouldn't have been harmed. Very scared, I'm sure, but not harmed." Chase says that predators in the sea - such as whales, sea lions, dolphins and sharks - have evolved to hunt the same school of fish together. So he believes ending up inside a whale's mouth is a rare experience for any underwater hunter. It's just tiny fish that need to worry. (Webmaster's comment: Swimming with feeding whales may not be the best idea.)
7-30-19 Spanish slugs: Moscow alarm over giant invasive pests
Giant orange slugs up to 15cm (6in) long are causing alarm in central Moscow - the latest place they have turned up since spreading from Spain. The Arion vulgaris slugs are monsters compared with most other slugs and are serious pests, capable of ravaging vegetable plots. A species monitoring website, EU-backed DAISIE, lists the slug among the 100 worst invasive pests in Europe. Russia's TV news programme Vesti found horrified reactions among Muscovites. Monday's report quoted one local resident, Abdula Tashibekov, as saying: "They eat an awful lot, and it's really hard to get rid of them; I've battled against them, but they just keep multiplying". Arion vulgaris is sometimes called Arion lusitanicus, or simply the Spanish slug. It can also be reddish-brown or yellow. It is a hermaphrodite, meaning each slug carries both male and female sex cells, so it can mate with any Arion partner it finds, and that increases the risk of infestation. One slug can produce up to 400 eggs at a time.Not only is it a voracious plant-eater, it can also spread plant parasites and nematode worms, which can harm domestic pets. Native to the Iberian Peninsula, the slug was first reported in France in 1956, and quickly spread north across Europe. Sales of plants across Europe are believed to have spread the slug's eggs widely. It is common in the UK, and in recent years it has been found in parts of Russia, but now it has reached Tverskaya Street, barely a slime trail away from the Kremlin. A Russian translator with the Twitter handle @NamShabOfEnki tweeted: "Central Moscow, 15 minutes' walk from the Kremlin. A gigantic slug the size of a little kitten. It hid under the dishes, sheltering from the rain. The cats didn't mind, they were lying next to it. GIGANTIC!!!"
7-26-19 Giving cats food with an antibody may help people with cat allergies
Pet-food maker Purina is studying how adding an antibody to the chow curbs reactions. Cat lovers who sneeze and sniffle around their feline friends might one day find at least partial relief in a can of cat food. New research suggests that feeding cats an antibody to the major allergy-causing protein in cats renders some of the protein, called Fel d1, unrecognizable to the human immune system, reducing an allergic response. After 105 cats were fed the antibody for 10 weeks, the amount of active Fel d1 protein on the cats’ hair dropped by 47 percent on average, researchers from pet food–maker Nestlé Purina report in the June Immunity, Inflammation and Disease. And in a small pilot study, 11 people allergic to cats experienced substantially reduced nasal symptoms and less itchy, scratchy eyes when exposed in a test chamber to hair from cats fed the antibody diet, compared with cats fed a control diet. The preliminary findings were presented in Lisbon, Portugal at the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology Congress in June. The Fel d1 protein is produced in cats’ salivary and sebaceous glands. Cats transfer the protein to their hair when they groom by licking themselves and excrete it in their urine. Humans are then exposed to it on cat hair and dander — dead skin — or in the litter box. Cat allergies plague up to 20 percent of people, and Fel d1 is responsible for 95 percent of allergic reactions to cats. Doctors can’t give humans antibodies orally because the molecules are broken down in the gut and never reach their targets, says Michael Blaiss, executive medical director of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and an allergist and immunologist at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. So Purina’s approach to the cat allergy problem is interesting and unusual, he says.
7-26-19 New monkey species found in Amazon area threatened by deforestation
He peered through his binoculars towards the treetops in awe. Perched up there were three small marmosets – with white tails. Rodrigo Costa Araújo was gobsmacked. Most other Amazonian marmosets’ tails are black. That was the moment that Araújo, at the National Institute of Amazonian Research, Brazil, realised he might have a new species on his hands. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, they are different, they are really, really different’,” he recalls. Araújo and his colleagues from institutes including the Federal University of Amazonas first spotted the marmosets in a remote part of the south-eastern Amazon, near the Tapajós and Jamanxim rivers. Araújo knew that no marmoset surveys had been conducted in the area before, so finding an undescribed species was a possibility. His hunch turned out to be right. After about a month of travel to get to the area in 2015, he embarked on fieldwork. To entice monkeys out of the trees, he played an MP3 recording of other marmoset calls over a speaker while trekking through the rainforest. During subsequent expeditions over the following three years, Araújo and his colleagues discovered that this patch of forest is home to clusters of the white-tailed marmosets. In order to prove they indeed represent a new species, the researchers killed five individuals for analysis under a permit provided by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, the administrative arm of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment. Their markings were the first thing that set them apart but the team also examined the monkeys’ DNA. Their genomes were all closely related but distinct from the genomes of other known marmosets in the Amazon. This evidence, combined with data showing their unique distribution across a 55,000 square kilometre area, helped to prove this was a species new to science. It has been named Mico munduruku.
7-25-19 Tree stumps that should be dead can be kept alive by nearby trees
A tree stump that should have died is being kept alive by neighbouring trees that are funnelling water and nutrients to it through an interconnected root system. The finding adds to a growing understanding that trees and other organisms can work together for the benefit of a forest. Sebastian Leuzinger at the Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, and a colleague were hiking through a forest track west of Auckland when they noticed a single tree stump with living tissue growing from it. Curious about how it was surviving without green foliage, they decided to put several continuous water monitors in the kauri (Agathis australis) stump and in two nearby adult trees of the same species. Over the following weeks, they found a relationship between the water flow in the trees and the stump. This meant that when the neighbouring trees would evaporate water through their leaves during the day, the water movement in the stump remained low. But when the trees were dormant during the evening, the water would begin circulating through the stump. Similarly, when it became overcast or rainy and the water flow dropped in the trees, it picked up in the stump. In healthy trees, water flow is largely driven by evaporation, but without leaves the stump’s water flow was bound by the movements of its neighbours. Along with a growing awareness of the way fungi help trees exchange carbon and other nutrients, this relationship undermines the notion of trees as individuals or distinct entities. “And that dramatically changes our view of forest ecosystems as ‘superorganisms’,” says Leuzinger. The networking of water among trees may make them more resistant to water scarcity, says Leuzinger, but it may also increase the risk of diseases spreading. This is a particular worry for kauri trees, which are being affected by a deadly disease called kauri dieback.
7-24-19 Dark feathers give birds hot wings that may save energy during flight
Dark feathers may help birds fly more efficiently. They heat up the animals’ wings and the surrounding air, which might help increase airflow over the wing. Svana Rogalla and her colleagues at the University of Ghent studied several bird species to see how the colour of feathers affects wing temperature during flight. They thermally imaged an osprey and found that dark feathers on the bird become warmer than light ones. To see how wing temperatures changed during flight, the team then used stuffed bird wings of different species in a wind tunnel, and heated them with infrared light bulbs similar in intensity to being outdoors on sunny and cloudy days. They exposed osprey, gannet and back-blacked gull wings to wind speeds of 6, 12 and 18 metres per second, similar to the birds’ natural flight speeds. “We wanted to simulate flight under realistic conditions,” says Rogalla. The species chosen were large soaring birds, which can increase their altitude without flapping their wings by riding on rising air currents. The team heated each wing for two minutes before placing it in the wind for two minutes. Darker feathers heated up much more than light feathers. “We found temperature differences of about nine degrees between black and white,” says Rogalla. “We would even find these temperature differences in the same wing.” The research suggests that a common wing pattern – white feathers at the root of the wing where it attaches to the body and black feathers at the wing tips – could increase lift while flying. The temperature difference between the light and dark feathers creates convective currents in the air above the wing that move from the cooler base of the wing to the darker tips. This boosts the airflow over the wing, which may make flight more efficient.
7-24-19 Light pollution's effects on birds may help to spread West Nile virus
Exposure to artificial light at night has been shown to affect the immune responses of some birds, and now a study has found that light pollution can extend the infectious period of West Nile virus in house sparrows. “These birds are a main reservoir of West Nile virus in nature. Mosquitoes will preferentially feed on some of these birds, and they live in urban, light-polluted habitats,” says Meredith Kernbach at the University of South Florida. “They’re likely one of the species that plays a key role in West Nile Virus transmission in light-polluted areas.” She and her colleagues captured 45 wild house sparrows at two sites near Tampa Bay, Florida. They housed 22 of them in natural light conditions and 23 of them in artificial light conditions, using warm light similar to that used in homes and street lamps. They exposed all the birds to West Nile virus and then, over the next 10 days, measured their blood samples for infection and their body mass. The sparrows housed with artificial light at night remained infectious longer than the birds housed under natural lighting conditions. According to the researchers’ calculations, this makes an outbreak of disease among sparrows 41 per cent more likely if the birds are exposed to artificial light. This, in turn, might make it more likely that the virus could jump to humans via mosquitoes that bite both sparrows and humans. “There’s an avian hormone synonymous to cortisol in humans, which is responsible for mediating responses to stressors in birds. We thought that may be dysregulated, but we found that this hormone was not affected by light at night, so we’ve begun investigating melatonin as the possible hormone behind this,” says Kernbach.
7-24-19 A frog study may point to where parenting begins in the brain
Core regions include one active in mammals, hinting at an ancient basis for parental behaviors. Most frogs lay oodles of eggs and quickly hop away. But some poison dart frogs baby their offspring, cleaning and hydrating eggs laid on land and piggybacking hatched tadpoles to water. A peek inside the brains of these nurturing amphibians reveals that in males and females, two regions linked with caring for young are the same — a finding that may provide clues to the neural underpinnings of parental behavior, researchers report online July 17 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. From humans to crocodiles, many creatures tend to their young. “But we actually understand very little about how the brain makes parental behaviors,” says Eva Fischer, a neuroethologist at Stanford University. To study how such care is wired into the amphibian brain, Fischer and her colleagues looked at neural activity in three poison dart frog species with different parenting strategies: Dendrobates tinctorius, among whom the males take care of the young; Oophaga sylvatica, whose females do the parenting; and Ranitomeya imitator, whose offspring are cared for by a monogamous male and female pair. The researchers collected and quickly killed 25 frogs while the amphibians were toting their tadpoles to water, in order to study the brain while it was still influenced by the parental task. Another 59 brains from non-caregiving frog species or caregivers’ partners were also included in the study. The researchers froze the frog brains and sliced them like loaves of bread. They stained the layers of tissue to pinpoint which nerve cells, or neurons, were turned on.
7-23-19 Singapore seizes elephant ivory and pangolin scales in record $48m haul
Singapore authorities have seized 8.8 tonnes (8,800kg) of elephant ivory, its largest ever seizure to date. Authorities estimate that the tusks, valued at $12.9m (£10.4m), have come from nearly 300 African elephants. Some 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales valued at $35.7m were also seized. It is believed to have belonged to about 2,000 of the mammals. The illegal cargo was found in containers after a tip-off from China's customs department. Authorities discovered the animal parts on Sunday after they inspected a shipment from the Democratic Republic of Congo that was passing through Singapore on its way to Vietnam. The containers were falsely declared to contain timber. "Upon inspection, sacks containing pangolin scales and elephant ivory were found in one of the containers," the National Parks Board said in a statement. The seized pangolin scales and elephant ivory will be destroyed. It is not the first time such illegal goods have been found in Singapore. The country has seized a total of 37.5 tonnes of pangolin scales since April this year. "Singapore has always been inadvertently implicated in the global ivory trade for two reasons: its global connectivity, as well as the presence of a small domestic market where pre-1990s ivory can be legally sold," Kim Stengert, chief communications officer for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Singapore, told Reuters. Ivory is used for ornaments and in traditional medicine in Asia. Pangolin scales are also in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The pangolin is said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world.
7-22-19 Salmon trapped in Canada landslide to be airlifted to safety
Thousands of Canadian salmon are going to be airlifted to safety after getting trapped by a landslide. In June, officials found the rocks had blocked off a section of Fraser River in British Columbia, stopping the salmon from swimming upstream to spawn. Rescuers have spent weeks devising a plan to fly the fish by helicopter to a spot on the other side of the rockfall. Conservationists warn the fish need to be able to lay their eggs, or the local salmon population will be at risk. It is not known exactly how many fish are stuck, but it is believed that only 700 have managed to pass through the area affected by the rock slide without help. Many of Canada's First Nations indigenous peoples rely on the salmon for food and ceremonial purposes. Jonathan Wilkinson, minister for Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, said the government had been "working around the clock" to help the fish. Officials have not said when the airlifting will begin. Crews are now constructing a holding pond for the salmon. The fish will then be transferred from the pond into 780-2,700 litre tanks, before a helicopter moves them away from the landslide. The water in the tanks will be oxygenated, to help keep the fish calm. While the holding pond is being built, workers are tagging the salmon in order to track their journey afterwards. Crews have also tried to move larger rocks around to make it a bit easier for the fish to pass through themselves, as well as to remove rocks from the nearby cliff face that could prove dangerous for the people working there.
7-19-19 Iceland pilot whales: Dozens of dead mammals found beached
Dozens of dead beached whales have been spotted by sightseers during a helicopter flight over western Iceland. The dead pilot whales were photographed during the trip on Thursday over a beach at Longufjorur. It's unclear how the mammals became beached. The region where they were spotted is secluded, inaccessible by car and has very few visitors. Police in the nearby town of Stykkisholmur have been made aware of the discovery, local media say. The images were taken by helicopter pilot David Schwarzhans.He told the BBC: "We were flying northbound over the beach and then we saw them. We were circling over it not sure if it was whales, seals or dolphins. We landed and counted about 60 but there must have been more because there were fins sticking out of the sand. "It was tragic and when we stood downwind it was smelly. It wasn't something nice to see and quite shocking since there were so many". Edda Elisabet Magnusdottir, a marine biologist and whale expert, told Iceland Monitor that when such mammals enter shallow waters "most of them have a tendency to become disorientated" She added that pilot whales usually swim in tight groups, which is why so many of them become stranded at once.
7-19-19 The bird that moves like Jagger
A cockatoo whose dance moves went viral more than a decade ago appears to be even more talented than scientists first thought. Snowball, who lives at a bird sanctuary in South Carolina, gained fame in 2007 after he was recorded head-bopping to the Backstreet Boys. Neuroscientists declared that he and his parrot relatives were the first nonhuman animals able to keep a beat to music. Now those same researchers have determined that Snowball not only has impressive rhythm, he also comes up with his own dance moves. That’s unique among animals, which typically only perform unnatural movements in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment from humans. To test his creativity, they played Snowball two songs—Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”—three times and filmed his reaction. They found that he was coming up with distinctive dance moves—14 in total, from a “body roll” to “head-foot syncs.” The researchers are now trying to understand Snowball’s motivations, reports The Washington Post, examining how he grooves when his owner is in the same room and when she dances with him. “We want to see if this matters in terms of how much he moves and how he moves,” says lead author Aniruddh Patel, from Tufts University. “This social context, does it play a role in his behavior?”
7-19-19 Russia alarmed by large fall in bee populations
Large areas of central and southern Russia have seen a major decline in their bee populations in recent months. The head of the Russian beekeepers' union, Arnold Butov, said 20 regions had reported mass bee deaths. The affected regions include Bryansk and Kursk, south of Moscow, and Saratov and Ulyanovsk on the Volga River. Mr Butov, quoted by Russian media, said the crisis might mean 20% less honey being harvested. Some officials blamed poorly regulated pesticide use. Yulia Melano, at the rural inspection service Rosselkhoznadzor, complained that her agency had lost most of its powers to control pesticide use since 2011. Russia produces about 100,000 tonnes of honey annually. Mr Butov said the union's members were collecting data on bee losses, so that by 1 August a detailed report could be submitted to the Russian government. Sunflowers and buckwheat are just two of the staple crops pollinated by bees in Russia. Orchards also rely on bees for pollination. There are fears that the bee deaths will push up not only honey prices, but also those of other popular foods. The crisis has spread as far as the Altai region in Siberia, more than 4,000km (2,485 miles) east of Moscow. Declining bee populations have caused widespread alarm in Europe, with experts blaming the crisis on a combination of factors: climate change, pesticides - notably neonicotinoids - and varroa mites spreading in beehives. In April 2018 the EU imposed an almost total ban on neonicotinoids because of the harm they do to bees and other pollinators. Beekeepers in France raised the alarm again in June this year, reporting many severely hit bee colonies. obert Aigoin, president of the family farmers' union Modef, said "the first part of the season has been catastrophic". He and other beekeepers blamed climate change, noting that late frosts had been followed by a severe heatwave in France
7-17-19 Why US bird attacks on humans are on rise
Bird attacks on humans are growing more common as people continue to encroach on bird nesting territory, wildlife experts warn. Mary Heiman was walking her dog around a lake in downtown Denver, Colorado, in late July when a bird started flying uncomfortably close to her head. Before she knew what was happening, the bird "body slams you in the back of the head, flies around frantically and then goes back in the bush", she told the Denver Post. "It's funny," she said. "It's just startling when it happens." Andrea Jones, the director of bird conservation for the California chapter of environmental organisation National Audubon Society, says attacks are definitely rising. "The increase we're seeing is because we're encroaching on bird habitats. So there are more bird-human interactions," she says. Most of the incidents arise when birds are trying to raise their young. Nesting birds are very defensive of their chicks - "like a mama bear", she says - and will even attack animals much larger than themselves. During Ms Jones' time studying common terns on a beach island in Massachusetts, she was frequently attacked by a noisy dive-bombing squawking swarm, and took to wearing a hat with plastic flowers attached since birds typically attack the highest part of their target. Ornithologists that study raptors and other birds of prey sometimes wear construction hard hats when checking nests for chicks. Joggers in Denver, Colorado, have been waving their arms above their heads as they run, in order to prevent their scalps from being strafed by red-winged blackbirds. It's also a problem outside the US. A man from Prestatyn in Wales was told by his town council to put up umbrellas after he asked the government how to prevent sea gull attacks around his home.
7-17-19 Orangutan mothers tell infants where to go by scratching themselves
Orangutan mothers use loud scratches to tell their infants that it is time to leave one area and move to another, possibly to avoid attracting predators or other orangutans. Primate experts are increasingly interested in behaviours such as scratching, self-grooming and face touching, debating whether these activities are intentional or simply due to psychological or physiological arousal. Marlen Fröhlich at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and her colleagues noticed that wild Sumatran orangutans living in the trees of the Suaq Balimbing forest in Sumatra would sometimes scratch themselves in a loud and exaggerated way. “We have found individuals in the forest just from hearing these loud scratches above our heads,” says Fröhlich. The scratches are a “rhythmic, harsh sound” due to the leathery skin and long hair of the orangutans, she says, and are loud enough to be heard by humans at least 15 metres away in a noisy rainforest. In contrast, the normal self-maintenance scratches involve smaller movements, happen less regularly and are less noisy. Fröhlich and her colleagues analysed 1457 bouts of scratching produced by 17 different orangutans, including four mothers and their dependent offspring, and the behaviour that occurred before and after each. “We found that orangutan mothers use their loud scratches to tell their infants that it is time to leave,” says Fröhlich. These exaggerated scratches were overwhelmingly produced by mothers, shortly before moving. They were usually directed towards a dependent offspring who was paying attention to them and who responded by moving towards the mother, she says. As a result, these loud scratches could be reliably distinguished from regular self-maintenance scratches.
7-17-19 Chimps bond with each other and people after watching a film together
Chimpanzees who watch a short film with a human or another chimpanzee are more likely to approach that individual or to spend time near them. This shows they feel closer to those they have shared an experience with, just like we do. “To our surprise, we found that the chimps were also sensitive to this,” says Wouter Wolf at Duke University in North Carolina. It is widely recognised that shared experiences can bring people closer together, making them more likely to interact. For instance, after England recently won the Cricket World Cup in an astoundingly close finish, strangers in the stands hugged each other. “Shared experiences open a psychological door between people,” says Wolf. After studying this phenomenon in people, he wondered whether it exists in apes too. He and colleague Michael Tomasello got chimpanzees at a zoo in Leipzig, Germany, and a human unfamiliar to them to watch a 1-minute video of young chimps playing. Sometimes the computer screen was placed so both the chimp and the person could see it and each other, and sometimes it was placed so only the chimp could see it. The film was chosen to be interesting enough to keep the animals’ attention but didn’t feature adult chimps as that could be too arousing. Eye tracking was used to confirm that the animals were watching the video and also looking to see if the human was watching too. Afterwards, the chimps approached the human faster if they had watched the video with them than if they hadn’t – 15 seconds on average versus 28 seconds.
7-17-19 Italy hunts bear after ‘genius’ escape over electric fences
A fugitive bear likened to a superhero for its daring escape over an electric pen in northern Italy is being hunted by forest rangers. The brown bear, named M49, was snared in the Trentino region on Sunday. Italian authorities had ordered the wild bear's capture after deeming it a danger to humans and farm animals. But the animal fled just hours after it was caught, reportedly scaling three electric fences and a 13ft (4m) high barrier. Park rangers with sniffer dogs are hunting the animal, which is currently believed to be in the Marzola woods near Trento. Trentino's governor Maurizio Fugatti gave forestry authorities permission to "shoot it down", saying the bear's escape over an electric fence "carrying 7,000 volts shows how dangerous it is". But his orders provoked fury among animal rights activists and were rebuked by Italy's environment ministry. "M49's escape from the enclosure cannot justify an action that would cause its death," said Environment Minister Sergio Costa. WWF Italy, a global conservation organisation, questioned how the bear was able to climb the electrified fence, suggesting the structure was probably "not working properly, since bears do not fly".
7-15-19 Elephants help forests store more carbon by destroying smaller plants
Elephants do a lot of damage to plants as they stomp around the jungle, but, counterintuitively, this activity increases the biomass of the forest, letting it store more carbon. If elephants were to go extinct, the amount of carbon stored in central African rainforests could ultimately fall by 7 per cent, according to a new analysis. There are thought to have been around a million elephants in these forests in the early 19th century, but there are now only about 100,000. These animals graze and trample on trees smaller than 30 centimetres in diameter – plants that are subject to a lot of competition for light, water and space. Fabio Berzaghi at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, and his colleagues wondered if elephants’ destructive habits might allow surviving trees to grow larger by eliminating their competition. They built a mathematical model of plant diversity and simulated the impact of elephants by increasing the mortality of smaller plants. The model showed that elephants reduce the density of stems in the forest, but increase the average tree diameter and the total biomass. Overall, they favour slow-growing trees that live longer and store more carbon in their trunks. “If elephants promote these kinds of trees, in the long run you will store more atmospheric carbon in trees,” says Berzaghi. The model results fit with data from sites in the Congo basin where elephants live and comparable areas that are undisturbed by elephants. These effects may also account for the differences between African and Amazonian rainforest. In the Amazon, where there are no large herbivores, the number of trees per hectare is higher, but they tend to be smaller and hold less biomass in total. “We think that large herbivores have contributed to these differences,” says Berzaghi.
7-15-19 Spraying bats with ‘good’ bacteria may combat deadly white nose syndrome
The treatment uses antifungal microbes that many of the animals already have on their skin. A one-time spritz with a solution of beneficial bacteria may help bats infected with white nose syndrome survive the deadly disease. Boosting the amount of naturally antifungal Pseudomonas fluorescens bacteria that are already present on many bats’ skin allowed nearly half of the animals to live through winter, compared with only 8 percent surviving in an untreated group, a small study finds. The cold-loving fungus responsible for white nose syndrome (Pseudogymnoascus destructans) has devastated North American bat populations. Since the disease arrived on the continent in 2006, it has wiped out more than 90 percent of most little brown bat colonies (Myotis lucifugus) in the northeastern United States, and is spreading west with infected bats (SN: 4/30/16, p. 20). Infections disrupt the animals’ hibernation, causing them either to use up their fat stores and starve or to leave their winter shelters and die of exposure (SN Online: 1/5/15). Many infected bats don’t make it until spring, when bats’ body temperatures and immune systems ramp up again, and the animals are more able to fight off fungal infections. “Bats are really difficult to work with, so being able to pull out some meaningful results from this work was a huge win for us,” says ecologist Joseph Hoyt, who set up the experiment in a Wisconsin mine. The researchers learned from previous efforts by scientists to study probiotic treatments for amphibians to fight chytrid fungus infections, says Hoyt, of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
7-14-19 Giant jellyfish spotted off Cornwall coast
Divers have swum with a huge barrel jellyfish off the coast of Cornwall. Lizzie Daly, a biologist with Wild Ocean Week, said the creature was as big as her body. It is the largest species of jellyfish found in British waters, with the average diameter being about 40cm (16 inches).
7-12-19 Manta ray in distress helped by divers
Deep-water divers Jake Wilton and Monty Halls formed an unlikely friendship with a manta ray after she appeared to ask them for help. The three-metre-wide gentle giant, affectionately named Freckles by local divers, approached them and flipped over in the water to show them her problem – hooks embedded under her right eye.
7-12-19 Tiny glasses help reveal how praying mantises can see in 3-D
Newfound nerve cells in the insects’ brains play a role in depth perception. A praying mantis depends on precision targeting when hunting insects. Now, scientists have identified nerve cells that help calculate the depth perception required for these predators’ surgical strikes. In addition to providing clues about insect vision, the principles of these cells’ behavior, described June 28 in Nature Communications, may also lead to advances in robot vision or other automated systems. So far, praying mantises are the only insects known to be able to see in 3-D. In the new study, neuroscientist Ronny Rosner of Newcastle University in England and colleagues used a tiny theater that played praying mantises’ favorite films — moving disks that mimic bugs. The disks appeared in three dimensions because the insects’ eyes were covered with different colored filters, creating minuscule 3-D glasses. As a praying mantis watched the films, electrodes monitored the behavior of individual nerve cells in the optic lobe, a brain structure responsible for many aspects of vision. There, researchers found four types of nerve cells that seem to help merge the two different views from each eye into a complete 3-D picture, a skill that human vision cells use to sense depth, too. One cell type called a TAOpro neuron possesses three elaborate, fan-shaped bundles that receive incoming visual information. Along with the three other cell types, TAOpro neurons are active when each eye’s view of an object is different, a mismatch that’s needed for depth perception.The details of the various types of nerve cells, and how they might receive, combine and send visual information, suggest that these insects’ vision may be more sophisticated than some scientists had thought, the team writes. And the principles guiding praying mantis depth perception may be useful to researchers working on improving machine vision, perhaps allowing artificial systems to better sense the depths of objects.
7-12-19 Trees demand equal status in a new Paris gallery show
They do not move, think, or see, but they understand their plight: a new exhibition brings art, science and environmentalism together to speak for the trees. “IT’s very chaotic,” says Luiz Zerbini, gesturing at his huge, colourful and joyful canvases crammed with the leaves, fruit and trunks of trees native to his home, Brazil. At first glance, his art, on show at the new Trees exhibition in Paris, appears to celebrate the riots of nature, free of people. But a closer inspection reveals humanity’s fingerprints — from a digger lifting a palm tree in the picture above (Coisas do Mundo) to plastic bottles on sticks. “I think it’s a reflection of the place I live. Rio de Janeiro has a huge forest just inside of the city. Everything is mixed. It’s an urban landscape, but it’s really full of nature,” says Zerbini. Unsurprisingly for a self-professed lover of plants, Zerbini despairs at the accelerating deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon under President Jair Bolsonaro. “We are living in a terrible time,” he says. Bolsonaro’s plan to grow the economy by clearing forest to grow soya is “very stupid”, he argues, because the country’s riches are in its natural world. Our very different relationships with trees are at the heart of Fondation Cartier’s exhibition. Some are humorous, like Sebastian Mejia’s photographs, which show the strange ways we fit trees into our cities. In one (below) a palm emerges through the roof of a petrol station in Chile. The show’s roots are in science, reflecting over 30 years of growing understanding of special kind of intelligence that trees possess, and of their importance to the world as climate regulators. “The moment we are destroying most of the forest and planet is the moment we have the real knowledge of plants and trees,” says curator Bruce Albert.
7-12-19 Purple fairy wrasse named Wakanda discovered on reef in twilight zone
Scuba divers have discovered a new fish – a vibrant purple fairy wrasse. They have named it Cirrhilabrus wakanda, after the fictional African kingdom in Marvel’s Black Panther movie. The 6-centimetre-long fish has dazzling, deep purple fins and a yellow head. Luiz Rocha at the California Academy of Sciences and his colleagues found the fairy wrasse more than 60 metres under the ocean surface in the coral reefs of eastern Zanzibar, Tanzania. The purple-streaked fish’s common name, the vibranium fairy wrasse, is a nod to the powerful, fictional, purple metal found in Wakanda and woven into the Black Panther character’s outfit. Just like secretive nation of Wakanda found in the Marvel comic books, the fish were hidden somewhere isolated and unexplored – in this case African reefs that are too deep for recreational divers to swim to. The team had to use special equipment to reach the dimly lit reefs more than 60 metres below, where they found the new fairy wrasse. Several other species of fairy wrasse are known to live in stretches of water in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but DNA and morphology analysis confirmed that this one was its own species. It was thought that these deep “twilight zone” reefs may be far enough down to protect them from the effects of humans. But recent research has overturned the idea, indicating that these rich ecosystems are just as vulnerable as shallow-lying ones.
7-11-19 Whale mothers and calves whisper to avoid attracting predators
Southern right whale mothers and calves whisper to each to avoid attracting predators such as killer whales and sharks, biologists have found. The whales feed near Antarctica during the summer and then migrate north to coastal waters during the winter to give birth and breed. The mothers and calves remain there for three months and often keep very close to shore, just beyond breaking waves. It is suspected they do this because the noise of the waves helps mask any sounds they make and thus makes it harder for predators such as killer whales and sharks to find them. The findings of Mia Nielsen of Aarhus University in Denmark and colleagues suggest this is indeed the case. Her team attached sensors to mother whales in Australia’s Flinders Bay to record the animals’ location and depth, and the sounds they produced. The suckers that held the sensors in place detached from the whales automatically after 12 hours, but most sensors were knocked off earlier by the calves, which stay very close to their mothers. The team found that mother-calf pairs made fewer than ten calls each hour, and the moo-like calls they do make are relatively quiet for whales – the equivalent of whispering. It was recently shown that humpback mother-calve pairs also whisper to each other, so this might be common behaviour in many whale species. The southern right whale pairs also made most calls when they were active. “We suspect that the sounds are a way for them to remain in contact with each other,” says Nielsen. It’s not clear how many calves fall victim to predators, she says. But the mothers invest a huge amount of time and energy in them, losing tons of weight during the time they nurse their calves without feeding themselves.
7-11-19 Southern right whale moms and calves may whisper to evade orcas
Quiet calls could help the animals keep close without broadcasting their location to predators. Whales are known for belting out sounds in the deep. But they may also whisper. Southern right whale moms steer their calves to shallow waters, where newborns are less likely to be picked off by an orca. There, crashing waves mask the occasional quiet calls that the pairs make. That may help the whales stick together without broadcasting their location to predators, researchers report July 11 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. While most whale calls are meant to be long-range, “this shows us that whales have a sort of intimate communication as well,” says Mia Nielsen, a behavioral biologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “It’s only meant for the whale right next to you.” Nielsen and colleagues tagged nine momma whales with audio recorders and sensors to measure motion and water pressure, and also recorded ambient noise in the nearshore environment. When the whales were submerged, below the noisy waves, the scientists could pick up the hushed calls, soft enough to fade into the background noise roughly 200 meters away. An orca, or killer whale, “would have to get quite close in the big ocean to be able to detect them,” says biologist Peter Tyack at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Tyack was not involved with the study, but collaborates with one of the coauthors on other projects. The whispers were associated with times when the whales were moving, rather than when mothers were stationary and possibly suckling their calves. Using hushed tones could make it harder for the pair to reunite if separated. But the observed whales tended to stay close to one another, about one body length apart, the team found.
7-10-19 Bluehead wrasse fish switch from female to male in just 20 days
For many fish, changing sex is a normal part of life. For the first time, we have found out exactly how one of these species – a small cleaner fish called the bluehead wrasse – does it. Erica Todd at the University of Otago in New Zealand and her colleagues removed some male bluehead wrasse from a few sites on reefs off Key Largo in Florida. This triggers females to change sex. They then caught changing females at regular intervals and looked at what was happening in their bodies down to the level of which genes were turning on or off. They found that the loss of males makes some females stressed. They become more aggressive and start performing male courtship behaviours. In individuals that become dominant in a social group, the genes associated with female hormones shut down in a day or two, and their colours begin to change – females of the species are yellow and brown (see above), while the males are green and blue. At the same time, the egg-producing tissues in their ovaries start to shrink and begin to be replaced by sperm-producing tissues. In just 8 to 10 days, the mature ovaries are transformed into testes, and the fish can mate with females and sire offspring. After around 20 days, the fish have the full male colours and the process is complete. “The bluehead is certainly remarkable for its speed,” says Todd. “Other species do take much longer.” However, as the fish only live around two or three years, those 20 days are a fair chunk of their lifespan, equivalent to 2 years of a human lifetime. Around 500 species of fish can change sex, a fact long known to biologists but which got wider attention recently when the Blue Planet II documentary narrated by David Attenborough showed Asian sheepshead wrasse changing sex. It is most common for female fish to turn into males but in some species including clownfish the males turn into females.
7-10-19 Nine Nara deer in Japan die after eating plastic bags
Nine deer have died in Japan's Nara Park over the last four months after swallowing plastic bags, a wildlife group says. The Nara Deer Preservation Foundation said they found huge masses of plastic bags and food wrappers in the stomachs of nine of the 14 deer that died between March and June. One animal was found to have over 4kg (9lbs) of rubbish in their stomach. Nara, a popular spot for tourists, is home to over 1,200 free-roaming deer. The Sika deer are classified as a national treasure, and so are protected by law. Most of them congregate in Nara Park, which is also home to temples and shrines. Visitors are allowed to feed them specially-made sugar-free crackers without plastic packaging. However, it is thought that some visitors may have fed the deer other snacks. Rie Maruko from the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation told Kyodo News Agency that tourists often discard food wrappers and plastic bags on the island. The deer then smell the bags, think they are food and then eat them. On Twitter, the foundation shared a photo of the mass of plastic bags found inside one of the deceased deer. It is thought that the deer may have died from malnutrition after their stomachs became blocked with plastic. On Wednesday volunteers took part in a mass clean-up of the park, collecting over 31kg (68lbs) of plastic waste. Nara prefecture's government is planning to investigate the animals' deaths and set up signs in the park with illustrations to warn tourists about the dangers of feeding the animals food that has not been approved.
7-9-19 Butterfly numbers fell by one third in the US over last two decades
Butterfly numbers have dropped by one third in the last two decades in the US, echoing declines seen in Europe. These figures raise alarm bells for the health of other insect populations, because butterflies face similar environmental changes and are used as a proxy for studying insects in general. Much of what we currently know about declining insect populations comes from European monitoring programmes. To find out if similar patterns were occurring in the US, Tyson Wepprich of Oregon State University and his colleagues turned to volunteers at the Ohio Lepidopterists, who have been collecting weekly data on butterfly sightings across the state over the last two decades. “We analysed their data to estimate trends for 81 species over this time and found that many more are declining than increasing,” says Wepprich. “Overall, the number of butterflies you’d expect to see has fallen by 33%, or at a rate of 2% per year.” As temperatures increased, Wepprich and his team found that species from the south moved north into Ohio and were growing in number, while the number of northern species shrunk. “Insects are very sensitive to temperature, and these changes in some species suggest that they are responding to ongoing climate change,” says Wepprich. It wasn’t only rare and vulnerable species whose numbers were decreasing. “I was surprised that some common species that are adapted to live in human-dominated habitat, like agricultural or urban areas, were declining,” he says. Common butterflies like the Cabbage White are not often considered to be in need of protection. “But we think this shows that the populations of some of the hardiest butterfly species may be affected by environmental changes,” says Wepprich.
7-9-19 Goats reveal their feelings with the sound of distinctive bleats
“Maaah.” Goat calls might all sound the same to us, but goats themselves seem to recognise when one of their herd-mates is happy or sad from their bleats alone. When goats hear a series of calls that change in emotional tone, they look towards the source of the sound – and heart-rate readings indicate the animals’ own emotions are swayed by the noises. Luigi Baciadonna of Queen Mary University of London and colleagues recorded goats bleating in different emotional states to see how they are affected by hearing each other’s calls. To elicit positive sounds, they recorded goats that could see someone approaching with a bucket of food. To get negative ones they let an animal see another being fed while not getting any food themselves, or kept one in isolation for five minutes. “This was not extreme distress – I don’t think most people could tell the difference in their calls,” says Baciadonna. Then to a different goat, the team played a bleat every 20 seconds, with nine positive ones followed by three negative or vice versa. At the start, the animal looked towards the source of the sound, but this tailed off as it got used to it. When the switch between emotional bleats happened, the goat was more likely to look again – but only with the second call of the batch of three. “There’s a bit of a delay in spotting the difference,” says Baciadonna. The team also tried to see how the goats hearing the recordings felt, by measuring their heart-rate variability, the variation in time between each heartbeat. In people, a high value for this is linked with more positive mood, while low values correlate with feeling depressed or stressed. Sure enough, when goats heard the happy bleats, their heart-rate variability was higher than when they heard the sad ones. “I don’t doubt any of this,” says David Harwood, senior vice-president of the UK’s Goat Veterinary Society. “Goat owners are always telling us how intelligent their animals are.” (Webmaster's comment: Almost all animals have a language. We just don't understand it.)
7-8-19 Watch Snowball the cockatoo show off the 14 dance moves he's invented
The idea that we humans have lots of unique abilities that animals lack has taken a battering in recent years – and now coming up with complex dance moves can be removed from the rapidly shrinking list. The cockatoo called Snowball has invented 14 different movements and even combines some of them. Aniruddh Patel of Tufts University first investigated the talents of internet dance sensation Snowball back in 2009. By changing tempos, his team showed he really can dance in time to music. After that study, Snowball’s owner Irena Schulz noticed Snowball was coming up with new dance movements. So the team filmed Snowball dancing to the 80s hits “Another one bites the dust” and “Girls just want to have fun”, and analysed his movements. The team’s compilation video shows Snowball can do far more than just bob his head. His dance repertoire includes body rolls and foot lifts, and even foot lifts combined with head bangs. (The compilation video has “Girls just want to have fun” as an added soundtrack rather than the music Snowball was actually grooving to at the time.) The study shows that parrots can move to music using a wide variety of movements and body parts just like (some) people. Sulphur-crested cockatoos like Snowball are particularly smart birds. They are capable of making tools and even picking locks. Now it seems their talents include dancing as well. No animals are known to dance in response to a musical beat in the wild, though many birds sing as they perform complex courtship dances. Not even the drumming of male wild palm cockatoos gets the females dancing. “What’s different about Snowball is that he is dancing to sounds he’s not making,” says Patel. “Also, unlike birds who vocalise and dance in the wild, he’s not doing it to get a mating opportunity.”
7-8-19 Moonlight shapes how some animals move, grow and even sing
Behavior can be tied to the lunar phases. Crowds of people gather to watch an evening spectacle on beaches in Southern California: Twice a month, typically from March through August, the sand becomes carpeted with hundreds or thousands of California grunion. Writhing, flopping, silvery sardine look-alikes lunge as far onto shore as possible. As the female fish dig their tails into the sand and release eggs, males wrap around females and release sperm to fertilize those eggs. About 10 days later, the eggs hatch and the little grunion get washed out to sea. This mating ritual is set to the tides, with hatching timed to the arrival of the peak high tide every two weeks. But the ultimate force choreographing this dance is the moon. Many people know that the moon’s gravitational tug on the Earth drives the tides, and with them, the life cycles of coastal creatures. Yet the moon also influences life with its light. For people living in cities ablaze with artificial lights, it can be hard to imagine how dramatically moonlight can change the nocturnal landscape. Out in the wild, far from any artificial light, the difference between a full moon and a new moon (when the moon appears invisible to us) can be the difference between being able to walk outside without a flashlight and not being able to see the hand in front of your face. And animals respond. The presence or absence of moonlight, along with the predictable changes in brightness across the lunar cycle, can shape reproduction, foraging, communication and other aspects of an animal’s world. “Light is possibly, maybe just after the availability of resources in terms of food, the most important environmental driver of changes in behavior and physiology,” says ecologist Davide Dominoni of the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
7-7-19 Obituary: Georges Brossard, the man who stuck up for insects
Georges Brossard dedicated his life to helping humans appreciate the underappreciated world of insects. Brossard, who has died aged 79, gave up a career in law to travel the world and collect more than 250,000 specimens, a collection that would eventually become one of Montreal's most visited tourist attractions. He inspired millions through regular TV appearances, raising the profile of tiny creatures he believed were misunderstood and undervalued in human society. One particular journey to find a rare insect - an extraordinary trip into the Mexican rainforest - would go on to inspire a film. Georges Brossard was born in 1940 into a farming family in La Prairie, Quebec. His father, Georges-Henri, founded the nearby city of Brossard, on Montreal's South Shore. In a 1989 interview he described the La Prairie of his childhood as "a beautiful, unspoiled place" and recalled how a school science class inspired him to start his first collection of insects. "In a cupboard at school there were two specimens for our science class, a butterfly and a chunk of asbestos," he said. "I could gaze at them for hours. I guess that's when I became attracted to insects." Even the destruction of that early collection - by ants and spiders - only inspired him to greater things. "When I saw my collection in ruins like that, it hit me like a bolt of lighting. I knew that eventually I would be a great international collector. I saw my insectarium. I saw myself standing there explaining the world of insects to people," he said. His plan took a while to come fruition. Brossard went on to study law at the University of Ottawa and became a notary - an official witness to the signing of contracts, agreements and other legal documents. But by his late 30s he had decided to devote his career to his great passions - entomology and the environment.
7-5-19 Beavers engineer their ecosystems in a way that helps moose and otters
Beavers bring benefits. A whole host of different mammals appear to benefit from having beavers in the area. In forests where beavers have been introduced in Finland, their presence is linked to increased activity of several species, including moose, otters, and weasels. Beavers are described as “ecosystem engineers” because their dam-building work has such a huge effect on habitats. Both the Eurasian beaver and the American beaver were almost driven extinct by hunting in the early 20th century, but they have since recovered in North America. More recently, beavers have begun to re-establish themselves in Europe, thanks in part to at least 157 reintroduction projects that have taken place in 24 European countries. The touted benefits they bring to the environment include drought prevention, carbon sequestration, flood management and keeping streams cool. They are also thought to boost biodiversity. To learn more about their impact on other mammals, Petri Nummi at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and colleagues set up camera traps and surveyed snow tracks at forest sites in southern Finland where the American beaver was introduced in the 1950s. Moose, red foxes and raccoon dogs visited beaver ponds more than control ponds where beavers were not present. Snow tracks showed that moose, otters, weasels and pine martens were more active in beaver patches than other sites. “The otter is a species of some concern in Europe, so this may be important from that point of view,” says Nummi. Beavers change the environments they occupy in several ways. Their dams flood large areas, creating shallow ponds that harbour lots of invertebrates. The trees they fell create open spaces in the forest where young saplings can grow. When beavers leave a pond and their dams break, the previously flooded area is rich in nutrients and can become a meadow.
7-5-19 Toxic processionary caterpillar plague spreads across Europe
Germany and the Netherlands are battling many infestations of oak processionary caterpillars, whose tiny toxic hairs can trigger allergic reactions and skin irritation. The mild winter and warm spring this year boosted caterpillar numbers. In Louvain, Belgium, firefighters had to destroy nests of the invasive species before a rock concert. The caterpillars turn into pupae, then moths in late July, and the threat diminishes. Germany's western Ruhr region is densely populated and among the worst affected by the caterpillars. Some schools and parks have been closed to allow specialists to attack the nests in oak trees. The caterpillars - measuring 2-3cm (about one inch) - march in long processions to the treetops at night, and can wreak havoc in oak trees, as they feast on the young leaves. One mature caterpillar has up to 700,000 hairs, which can be spread by the wind. The Fredenbaumpark in Dortmund was closed for three weeks, as nearly 500 trees were found to be infested there, broadcaster Deutschlandfunk reported. "The oak processionary infestation this year is very intensive - much more than last year," said the park's manager Frank Dartsch. Special teams there and elsewhere have donned protective gear and used firefighters' lifts to reach the treetops, where they have attacked the caterpillar nests with blowtorches or big vacuum cleaners. In the Netherlands, the infestations have also increased compared with 2018, with the oak-rich provinces of Noord-Brabant, Drenthe and Overijssel especially affected. A video of an elderly woman attacking the caterpillars with a heat gun in the city of Enschede has gone viral, the nltimes.nl website reports. Broadcaster RTL says the caterpillars have spread all over Luxembourg, a heavily forested country. The Luxembourg City authorities have issued a health warning, as the caterpillars are in the city too.
7-4-19 How high-tech seals are helping us learn about our warming oceans
Researchers are using seals as science allies. n a rocky island just off the coast of West Antarctica, ecologist Lars Boehme is standing face-to-face with a 1,500-pound elephant seal, eyeing the animal's bulbous nose and jowls to see if he's finished shedding his fur. When the seal opens his mouth wide to bellow, Boehme waves his hand in front of his face like he's just smelled something foul. "You can hear the amount of air going in and out," Boehme said of the animal, which is the length of a small car and has a distinctively sour musk. "It's like an air conditioner." Boehme is on a two-month scientific expedition to Thwaites Glacier, a Florida-sized glacier that sits at the center of West Antarctica. It's melting fast and could eventually trigger roughly 11 feet of global sea level rise. Scientists on the voyage are working to decode if, and when, that might happen. Boehme and three colleagues have come to one of the Schaefer Islands on a crisp day in mid-February to enlist an army of seals to help gather climate data. As penguins squawk in the background and waddle around on small ridges, Boehme and his team look for seals to tag with sensors that will track the layer of warm water that's thought to be melting Thwaites. Scientists believe changing winds are forcing a layer of warmer, denser circumpolar deepwater up from the deep ocean and onto the shallower continental shelf in front of West Antarctica. But they don't know exactly how. Clues from these seals, showing where that warm water is working its way toward the continent, how much of it there is, and how it changes seasonally, are key to understanding if, and how fast, West Antarctica's glaciers might collapse. "We record temperature, salinity, and depth whenever a seal dives, and when the seal comes back to the surface, the data is transmitted in real time back to a ground station back home," said Boehme, an ecologist and oceanographer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who has been doing this work for 15 years.
7-3-19 Why cat people and dog people's personalities match those of their pet
People's personalities often have more in common with their dog or cat than their friends, and now we know why owners and their animals are such a purr-fect match. PSYCHOLOGIST Richard Wiseman’s taste for quirky science is well known, so his pet personality project should come as no surprise. In an online survey, he asked people to rate their pets for things like friendliness and neuroticism. Over half of fish owners said their watery friends had a good sense of humour. Fish apparently appreciate a joke more than cats, horses and birds – but not as much as dogs. Reptiles entirely fail to see the funny side of things, according to their owners. The survey also asked people to evaluate themselves. “Fish owners were the happiest,” Wiseman reported on his Quirkology website, “dog owners the most fun to be with, cat owners the most dependable and emotionally sensitive, and reptile owners the most independent.” There were big differences in personality, he noted. And here is the clincher: most people attributed the traits they possessed to their animals too. In other words, we see our pets as reflections of ourselves. Just a bit of fun? You might think so. But in recent years a new breed of researcher has been investigating the complex relationship between people and their pets. They are trying to answer questions including: are pets like substitute children; do we manipulate them, or them us; and can the world really be divided into “dog people” and “cat people”? Some people are said to look like their pets, but this new take on human-pet interactions is even weirder: it turns out that we may think like them too. Most of this research focuses on cats and dogs. Worldwide, they are by far the most popular pets – fish are kept in greater numbers but by fewer people. More than half of people in the US have a dog or cat in their home, for example. And in the UK, where around 45 per cent of homes have a pet, a quarter of households own dogs and some 18 per cent are owned by cats.
7-3-19 Every single neuron in an animal mapped out for the first time
A complete map of all the neurons and their connections in both sexes of an animal – a tiny worm – has been described for the first time. A COMPLETE map of all the neurons and their connections in both sexes of an animal has been described for the first time. This “connectome” will not only help us understand how neurons work, but could also improve our understanding of human mental-health problems. The tiny soil-dwelling nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans has long been used for research because it has so few neurons. The hermaphrodite version of it, for example, has 302 neurons in its entire nervous system, compared with 86 billion in the human brain alone. A basic map of these 302 neurons was published in the 1980s, when Nobel-prizewinning biologist Sydney Brenner and his colleagues used an electron microscope to examine minute slices of the hermaphrodite worm, which is essentially female but can produce a limited amount of sperm. “It was a very important piece of work, but it was in pieces, it was incomplete, and it didn’t include the male,” says Scott Emmons at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Since then, Emmons and his colleagues, and other groups, have used similar approaches to note the connections in parts of the male worm. Now Emmons’s team has captured images of the entire male and analysed new and old images from the hermaphrodite. “Electron micrographs are too complex for a computer to analyse. All of the images were examined by a person,” says Emmons, who has been planning the project since 1999. His team has now been able to describe all of the neurons and their connections in both the male and hermaphrodite worms for the first time. The group has used the data to create a digitised map that shows the neurons’ location and connections, and the strength of those connections (Nature, DOI:10.1038/s41586-019-1352-7).
7-3-19 Why some insect eggs are spherical while others look like hot dogs
A new database is helping scientists test ideas of how the diverse forms have evolved. Look at the nail of your pinky finger. That’s about the width of the biggest known insect egg, which belongs to the earth-borer beetle Bolboleaus hiaticollis. The smallest egg, from the wasp Platygaster vernalis, is only half the width of the thinnest recorded human hair. Insect eggs range across eight orders of magnitude in size, and come in a stunning variety of shapes, a new database of almost 10,500 descriptions of eggs from about 6,700 insect species shows. The Harvard University team behind the database thinks it’s figured out one reason why. In a separate analysis, the researchers determined that where insects lay their eggs — for example, in water or in the bodies of other critters — helps to explain some of the diversity that’s evolved over time. The database and study were both published July 3 in Scientific Data and Nature, respectively. “Eggs provide a wonderful window into the evolutionary and ecological forces involved in animal reproduction,” says Mary Stoddard, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University not involved in the new work. Stoddard and her colleagues analyzed over 47,000 photos of eggs of 1,400 bird species in a 2017 study, which found a link between a bird’s egg shape and the animal's ability to fly. “Compared with bird eggs, insect eggs are truly wild,” she says. “Some insect eggs are spherical or elliptical, but others resemble arrowheads or hot dogs.” To compile the database of insect eggs, researchers developed computer programs that extracted egg measurements from text and photos in 1,756 digitized publications, and then used the measurements to estimate egg sizes and shapes. Representatives of over 500 families from all insect orders were included.
7-3-19 Seals remember what they just did – but only for about 18 seconds
Seals and sea lions can remember what they have just done, and repeat it on command, if they are asked to do so within 18 seconds. The finding suggests that they have at least some form of consciousness, since they are seemingly aware of their actions. “All the species we tested could do it,” says Simeon Smeele at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. Smeele and his colleagues tested seven captive animals: a grey seal, two harbour seals and four South American sea lions. All had previously been trained to perform actions like waving a flipper on command. They were first taught a new command that meant “repeat what you just did” – without actually specifying what the action to be repeated was – and were given fish when they learned to respond in the right way. However, simply learning to repeat the action was not enough, because the animal might just be responding to the previous command – to wave a flipper, for instance. “To make sure the animal was not doing this, we did double repeats,” says Smeele. In other words, the animal was commanded to perform a task, then told to “repeat”, and then told to “repeat” a second time. On the second repeat, simply remembering the previous cue – “repeat” – would not help the animal, so it could only respond to the request correctly by remembering the action it had performed. “I would say this shows that animals are aware of their own behaviour,” says Smeele. That means they have a degree of consciousness. However, it does not make them as self-aware as we are, as they would also need to be aware of their own inner state and be aware of their own awareness. To make it even harder, the team started putting a delay of a few seconds between the original action and the repeat command. The animals became less accurate with longer delays, and after 18 seconds they were no better than chance.
7-2-19 Japan's return to commercial whaling has no economic or cultural case
The decision by Japan to resume commercial whaling should be condemned – if not for its uncertain effect on whales, then for its contempt for international agreements. ALL pretence of being “scientific” has now been dropped. On 30 June, Japan formally left the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which sets global rules for whale conservation. On 1 July, a boat returned with the first catch. The minke was Japan’s first whale caught in an openly commercial operation for 31 years. The country has hunted whales in that time under the pretext of scientific research, but it has long petitioned to return to commercial whaling. When its last proposal was voted down by the IWC in September, Japan pledged to leave the commission. The country’s Fisheries Agency has set a six-month quota of 52 minke, 150 Bryde’s and 25 sei whales, saying it expects a smaller catch than during its “scientific” operation in the Southern Ocean and north-west Pacific. The agency claims this harvest could be sustainable for 100 years. The IWC must now investigate the evidence, if any, for that claim. Given the threats to whales from shipping, pollution and climate change, it seems dubious at best. There was never any scientific justification for whaling: Japan’s operation provided little or no reliable ecological data. There is no economic justification for commercial whaling, either. Consumption of whale meat in Japan has fallen from 200,000 tonnes per year in the 1960s to 3000 tonnes today, and the industry is propped up by government subsidies. As for any cultural rationale, polls show no great groundswell among the Japanese population in support of whaling. Some have argued that whale numbers globally will benefit from Japan’s unilateral move, since its whaling will now be confined to its territorial waters. But taking more creatures out of the ocean anywhere in the world is the last thing we ought to be doing.
7-1-19 Scientists 'speechless' at Arctic fox's epic trek
A young Arctic fox has walked across the ice from Norway's Svalbard islands to northern Canada in an epic journey, covering 3,506 km (2,176 miles) in 76 days. "The fox's journey has left scientists speechless," according to Greenland's Sermitsiaq newspaper. Researchers at Norway's Polar Institute fitted the young female with a GPS tracking device and freed her into the wild in late March last year on the east coast of Spitsbergen, the Svalbard archipelago's main island. The fox was under a year old when she set off west in search of food, reaching Greenland just 21 days later - a journey of 1,512 km - before trudging forward on the second leg of her trek. She was tracked to Canada's Ellesmere Island, nearly 2,000 km further, just 76 days after leaving Svalbard. What amazed the researchers was not so much the length of the journey as the speed with which the fox had covered it - averaging just over 46 km (28.5 miles) a day and sometimes reaching 155 km. "We couldn't believe our eyes at first. We thought perhaps it was dead, or had been carried there on a boat, but there were no boats in the area. We were quite thunderstruck," Eva Fuglei of the Polar Institute told Norway's NRK public broadcaster. No fox has been recorded to travel that far that fast before. Eva Fuglei has been working with Arnaud Tarroux of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research to track how the foxes cope with the dramatic changes of the Arctic seasons. "There's enough food in the summer, but it gets difficult in winter. This is when the Arctic fox often migrates to other geographical areas to find food to survive. But this fox went much further than most others we've tracked before - it just shows the exceptional capacity of this little creature," she says. The Polar Institute produced a graph that shows how the fox made two breaks in her journey across northern Greenland. The scientists think she may have curled up in the snow to sit out bad weather, which is perfectly possible with such thick protective fur, or else found a source of food like seabirds in an open channel of water.
7-1-19 Japan's commercial whaling fleet sets sail
Five whaling ships have set sail from Kushiro in Japan for the country's first commercial hunt since 1986. The ships are allowed to catch up to 227 whales in Japanese waters, after it pulled out of an international whaling moratorium.